Unless he learns how to cloak his fastball with stealth technology, Francisco Liriano might never step onto a mound with a better chance to dominate an opponent than he had on Sunday at Target Field.
He faced a terrible Cubs team and a lineup weaker than the Wi-Fi you steal from your neighbor. The day was hot, reminiscent of Liriano's youth in the Dominican Republic, and Liriano was working in one of baseball's most notable pitchers' parks.
Liriano had his personal catcher and psychotherapist behind the plate, Drew Butera. His team was playing its best baseball since last June, and he had two consecutive strong starts atop his heavily whited-out résumé.
Given all of those advantages, Liriano dominated for five innings.
And failed to complete the sixth.
Liriano once was known as Frankie Franchise. Now he's Francisco Futility.
He failed as a starter for a team that begged him to be its ace, failed at the beginning of a contract season, when most athletes experience season-long adrenaline surges, and then he failed in relief. Reinstated as a starter for no reason other than that deportation would have seemed harsh, Liriano teased once again, allowing only one earned run in 12 innings against Oakland and Kansas City, two teams weaker than O'Doul's.
Sunday offered Liriano a chance to pound another lineup softer than a bean-bag chair, and he continued his dominance, allowing only one run in the first five innings. That one run was the result of a hard-hit ball that Josh Willingham could have caught in deep left field.
Through five, Liriano had allowed only three baserunners and had walked only one Cub.
He started the sixth by walking Reed Johnson and giving up a double to Starlin Castro, putting runners on second and third.
David DeJesus scored one run with a grounder to second. Liriano allowed the next with a wild pitch, his second of the game.
Liriano intentionally walked Soriano, struck out Jeff Baker, then threw the wild pitch and gave up a double to Joe Mather. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire popped quickly out of the dugout and called in Brian Duensing.
"I was happy with the way he threw the ball," Gardenhire said. "Just that one inning got out of hand. Frankie threw the ball really good."
Gardenhire has no choice but to handle Liriano with oven mitts. The Twins need him to either help them win, or to increase his trade value.
Gardenhire chose to emphasize Liriano's five strong innings. Those who have watched Liriano's career collapse the past two seasons should have trouble ignoring his free fall in the sixth.
He entered the sixth having thrown only 63 pitches. Six batters and two outs later, he had thrown 89.
Liriano was supposed to be the Twins' ace. More than a third of the way through his contract year, he is 1-7 with a 6.45 ERA. The Twins didn't give him much of a chance to win Sunday, but better control in the sixth would have kept the game competitive.
If Liriano was 4-4, the Twins would be tied with Detroit for third place in the AL Central. Instead, they remain in last place in a division so weak it might be relegated to the Northwoods League.
"I'm happy with Frankie's performance as far as throwing the ball," Gardenhire said.
Liriano has a 2.55 ERA in his past three starts, striking out 23 in 17 2/3 innings. He has bonded with Butera and calmed his delivery. Sunday, he cruised through five, then reverted to his broken-water-sprinkler delivery, making Butera dance like an extra in a Western whose shoes are being peppered by bullets from a Colt 45.
Liriano is no fun to criticize. He seems shy and insecure. He's quiet and polite. He's also wasting considerable talent, damaging his team and his career.
He has got about seven weeks to help the Twins contend, or help them find him a new home. As he proved for five innings, he is capable of controlling his pitches. As he proved again in the sixth, he is not always capable of controlling himself.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org